Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mumbai Magic -- or Madness

Good morning from Mumbai, India's most vibrant city and a place I can never get tired of. It's chaotic, noisy, busy and dirty -- but the energy, sounds, colors and flavors are intoxicating.

I'm typing this out from the comfort of my 32nd floor room at the swanky new Four Seasons Hotel with what is probably the most fabulous view of Mumbai. The Arabian sea is right in front and to the left is central Mumbai with all its ambitious skyscrapers and also unbelievable disorder. One floor above me is AER, India's tallest bar, a fantastic place which literally gives me goosebumps and vertigo at the same time. Next to my room is the presidential suite, and this morning on the way to the spa, I was startled when I walked out my door to see about half a dozen security men seated in a row of chairs along the hallway -- it was just past 6 AM here and obviously they'd been there all night awake.

Later when a waiter brought in my room service breakfast, I asked him: "Who's the VIP in the presidential suite?"

He looked at me rather conspiratorially and whispered, "The most important man in Indian cricket."

Cricket is a very big deal here. But even then, I was hard pressed to imagine why a sportsman needed so many bodyguards outside his door in a very private hotel that is already incredibly difficult to get into. They check your car for bombs at the gate, and then your bags at the door; and your key opens to no other floor but your own. If this guy was thinking of terrorists, they'd have to be pretty fit to climb up 32 flights of stairs with their equipment.

The spa itself was pretty nice, although almost exactly what you see in other new properties of this ultra-luxury hotel chain. It had the steel underwater beds with jacuzzi bubbles, a crystal steam room, and shaved ice dropping onto a bowl from the ceiling in case you needed cooling off. More later on this, though, as I'm due for some ayurveda treatments at 5 PM.

Another surprise this morning was opening the Bombay Times and seeing a large photo of Urvashi Sharma inside, and her name mentioned in the same breathe as Shilpa Shetty and other Bollywood household names. Urvashi Sharma, you see, was a Travelife cover girl in 2008.

During my previous visit to Mumbai in April 2008, my husband and I had dinner at the legendary Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (that's it in the photo above) with her foster father, Prahlad Kakkar, who is known as the Father of Indian Advertising and the brains behind all those Incredible India ads. The meal was purely social but afterwards, as the group made its way down the staircase, I spotted Prahlad several steps down and was suddenly inspired to shoot a cover for Travelife the next day.

"Prahlad, do you know any beautiful girls we can shoot for a cover?" I called after him.

He stopped on the staircase, and I can still remember the incredulous look on his face. It seemed to say: Do we need air to breathe? Does the sun rise the next day? Is the sea blue?

Prahlad lives and breathes Bollywood so of course he knows all the beautiful girls.

With a slight look of impatience, he asked me: "What kind do you want? Dark? Fair? Asian? Indian? European?"

I managed to mumble, "Eurasian would be good."

"See you tomorrow." He simply said, with a wave of his hand.

The very next day, he was back at my suite at the Taj Mahal Palace with a beautiful young girl who turned heads wherever she went. This was Urvashi. She'd not even been discovered yet and was waiting for a big break, although she told me with a smile that she was hoping to be in London that summer to film an Indian movie. But at that time, she was just a pretty young thing who Prahlad and his beautiful wife had taken under their wing as a sort of protege. With the help of the Taj hotel staff, and a few luxury boutiques in the hotel including Prada and Fendi, the shoot went excellently, and I still consider it one of our best covers to date.

That evening, all of us including Urvashi and Prahlad went to dinner at the Hyatt hotel -- then, it was the coolest place to hang out in Mumbai and it was full of models and very chic looking couples. It had been a very long and tiring day, but our stay in Mumbai ended on this happy and very late note. And then the next day we flew out of Mumbai back to Delhi to continue onwards around Northern India.

Fast forward to this week, back in Mumbai. Last night, our group of 14 very lively girls from Manila (actually 12 from Manila and 2 from Cebu) was at the home of a very charming interior designer who hosted dinner for all of us in her art-filled apartment in a posh section of Mumbai. We were all already gathered around enjoying an endless round of canapes and drinks -- a bartender came up every three minutes to ply us with all sorts of concoctions -- when her sister walked in. She introduced herself as a Bollywood producer and casting director.

Mumbai is almost like Manila. It's got 18 million people, but among a certain group of people, it's a very small world. Everyone knows everyone or is related to them somehow. And especially Bollywood.

Suddenly when I had a moment alone with her, I asked, "Do you know Prahlad Kakkar?" It was a very quick and hectic trip to Mumbai this time around, so I had not thought about contacting him. But somehow, when this lady mentioned her day job, I remembered Pralad and thought I'd ask after him.

"Do I know him? I know him very well!" She replied. Within a minute, she was on her mobile phone to Prahlad, chattering excitedly in Hindi. And then she handed her mobile to me and soon Pralad and I were catching up like old friends. He told me he was coming to Tokyo in November as a guest of the Japanese prime minister, and I promised to organize a party for him then.

That got me thinking about how small the world has become, and how international its citizens now are -- that we can move from one country to another almost seamlessly and adapt to cultures, traditions and societies without difficulty, This really is the way for the future, and the raison d'etre of Travelife Magazine.